Legal Blog

When a Peaceful Protest Turns into a Riot

Author Clark & Noonan, LLC
Posted July 28, 2020
Category Assault and Aggravated Assault, Criminal Defense

Going to a peaceful protest? Know before you go.

Your intention may be peaceful, but sometimes things go awry at these events. A peaceful protest may morph into a full-fledged riot resulting in injuries, legal trouble, or worse. If you are arrested during a protest that goes rouge, it could impact the rest of your life. To protect yourself, plan ahead, and take extra health precautions as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a factor.

If you are arrested at a protest in New Jersey, you may face criminal charges of failure to disperse or rioting, a more serious charge. If you are protesting in the vicinity of people who are vandalizing shops and stores, you may be charged with looting. You will need the assistance of a skilled criminal defense law firm to defend your rights. A criminal defense attorney can represent you at a court hearing and negotiate with the prosecutor on your behalf. Depending on the seriousness of the charges, it may be possible to have rioting charges reduced to a lesser charge or dismissed.

The criminal defense lawyers in New Jersey at Clark & Noonan, LLC are prepared to stand up for your rights to engage in peaceful protest.

What’s the Reason Behind the Protests?

The issues fueling these events are racial inequality and police brutality. The George Floyd incident in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was captured on videotape in horrifying detail in May, has riveted the nation’s attention on a black man’s death at the hands of an overzealous police officer.

Cities large and small in New Jersey and across America have seen protests that started peacefully but, in some cases, turned into riots.

As Americans, we have the right to assemble in a peaceful manner and to petition our government to correct laws we believe are unjust. These protections are listed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

An article in Psychology Today magazine outlines the factors that contribute to our collective need to express our frustrations through peaceful protest. First, there is mounting evidence that disruptive outsiders, including extremists and white supremacist groups, are infiltrating these protests to subvert the racial justice and equality movement. They seem to be inciting the effort by engaging in destruction and violence in order to trigger violent government reactions.

In some cities across the U.S., local police have acted aggressively against protestors with the use of rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons, and tear gas. This often further antagonizes the protesters.

In New Jersey, law enforcement officers have demonstrated restraint in most cases. As a result, dozens of peaceful protests have remained mostly safe and controlled. But there have been arrests.

Caught in a Riot While at a Peaceful Protest?

An event that you may expect to be totally peaceful may end up with you and other participants being corralled and arrested.

Police may order protesters to disperse and then arrest those who fail to leave quickly. 

When four or more people are engaged in disorderly conduct, those arrested may be charged with rioting, under New Jersey Statute: 2C:33-1.

Be aware that rioting is a felony in New Jersey. A riot occurs if a group of people attempts to prevent local police or National Guard from restoring order. If you’re charged with rioting, you may also be charged with looting, burglary or criminal trespass. All these charges are felonies in New Jersey.

If the protesters are found to have firearms or other deadly weapons, those arrested may face a more serious third-degree criminal charge.

It’s not uncommon for the police to arrest a whole group of protesters, take them to the police station, and then sort out the charges.  It may be possible to have a charge of rioting reduced to failure to disperse, which is a disorderly person’s offense.

If you are arrested for rioting or failure to disperse, you should take the charges seriously and contact a criminal defense attorney at the earliest opportunity. A criminal defense attorney can investigate the incident in which you were arrested and gather evidence to support your version of events.

Here are a few tips:

  • Wear a secure-fitting mask and keep it on.
  • Wear nondescript clothing and comfortable shoes. Cover identifying tattoos and tie up long hair.
  • Bring a friend and stay together.
  • Bring at least two bottles of water. Conserve enough to flush your skin if you are hit with pepper spray or pepper bullets.
  • Do not wear eye makeup or contacts, in case you are targeted with pepper spray or pepper bullets.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and wash your hands at every opportunity.
  • Bring a hat and/or sunscreen. Avoid oil-based creams that can trap chemicals.
  • Bring a pocket “know your rights” guide.
  • Bring your state ID, up to $100 in small bills, an “In Case of Emergency” card.
  • Don’t bring anything you wouldn’t want to get arrested with (e.g., weapons, illegal substances, valuables, etc.).
  • Bring small snacks.
  • Bring medications you need in case of arrest.

How Peaceful Protests Can Turn into a Riot

There’s often just a very few moments of transition when a peaceful protest turns into a riot. Sometimes it’s spurred by one person or a few. Observers note that it’s not uncommon for the actions of the National Guard and police officers to make the situation more volatile. Across the country, their tactics have been chronicled by participants, the media, and interested observers.

In New Jersey, however, it seems officers have demonstrated admirable restraint. As a result, dozens of peaceful protests have remained mostly safe and controlled.

In the United States, some commentators have suggested violence on their streets stems from a deep sense of despair and helplessness that things never change. Psychological research somewhat supports this premise. Where people don’t believe their appeals to authorities will be heard, protesters may be more likely to resort to violence. They feel they have nothing to lose.

At the same time, heavy-handed policing can lead to violence. This is affirmed by decades of research as a catalyst of protest violence.

If you find yourself caught in a riot, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Joe Ready of the Ready Lifestyle is an expert in emergency and disaster management with 20-plus years of experience.

He offers the following tips on how to survive a riot:

  • Avoid the area where things are escalating.
  • Stay calm and move away from the crowd.
  • Keep your family and friends close.
  • Try to blend in with the crowd.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Don’t be a hero.
  • Don’t run at the police.
  • Prepare your home or business beforehand.
  • Stay away from large crowds.
  • Prepare to be attacked.

Knowing Your Rights Before, During and After Arrest

Before the event, take time to gain a deeper understanding of your rights. The NYU School of Law offers this advice:

  • You have a constitutional right to demonstrate.
  • If you are stopped, ask if you are free to go. If the police say yes, calmly walk away.
  • You have the right to record as part of your right to protest. However, the police can order people to stop interfering with
  • legitimate police operations. Video recording from a safe distance is not interfering.
  • If you are stopped, police cannot take or confiscate any videos or photos without a warrant.
  • If you are arrested, do not say anything. Ask for a lawyer immediately. Do not sign anything and do not agree to anything without an attorney present.
  • If you are taken for processing or detention, give only your name and current ID.
  • Police are never allowed to delete data from your device.

Possible Repercussions from an Arrest at a Protest

You may not be aware that having been arrested in a non-violent protest may follow you long after the event has ended. You may be asked on a college or job application if you’ve ever been arrested. If so, you should answer truthfully. Explain that it was for your involvement in non-violent civil disobedience. No one knows how seriously a university or employer will view circumstances such as this.

If you are convicted, the consequences will likely be greater. This is particularly true if you’re applying to a professional licensing board. All these issues are more serious if you’re not a U.S. citizen.

Be aware that rioting is a felony in New Jersey. Know what constitutes a riot. A riot occurs if a group of people attempts to prevent or coerce officials with the local police or National Guard from restoring order. If you’re charged with rioting, you may also be charged with robbery, burglary or criminal trespass. All these charges are felonies in New Jersey.

In addition, if you fail to abide by curfew or other government restrictions, you could face a charge of failure to disperse upon official order. Unlike robbery, burglary, trespassing, and rioting, this is a misdemeanor charge. Disorderly conduct is a lesser included offense within the failure to disperse. It is a misdemeanor.

Rioting in New Jersey becomes a more serious crime of the third degree if it is committed with a deadly weapon or firearm.

Free Case Reviews for Arrested Protesters

If you find yourself dealing with charges related to peaceful protests, riots, failure to disperse, and other forms of civil disobedience, know that the criminal defense lawyers at Clark & Noonan are prepared to stand up for your rights. It all begins with a free review of your case.

We’re available 24/7 to get to work on understanding your situation and building a defense strategy.

We’re an aggressive group of former prosecutors who understand criminal charges from every angle. Our track record proves it. Count on us to fight for your rights from the moment you retain our services.